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1 Debates: homeless crisis

In the Dail, Mary Lou McDonald (SF, Dublin C) spoke of how the homeless crisis was getting worse (Dail Eireann, Debates, 27th November 2013, 722-730). Walk around here and one will see countless people, many of them young, sleeping rough and imagine what is must be like, she said.  This week, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive confirmed that rough sleeping in the city had increased a shocking 200% in the past twelve months and Focus Ireland reported an 18% increase in demand on its services.  The government’s austerity policies were forcing families out of their homes and onto the streets, while its cuts to social housing meant that councils did not not have the houses to ensure that nobody was forced to sleep rough.


Responding, the Taoiseach told her that this was not a a simple matter to sort out.  He had spoken to someone on the street the other night from outside Dublin who had had a row with his spouse and was on the streets and according to him would be for a couple of weeks.  This issue became more of a focus because of a time of year when the weather was deteriorating.  He understood that the figure referred to the number of individuals in contact over a six month period, who might have left an emergency accommodation bed, but which was not a measure of people sleeping rough on a given night.  The last twice-yearly rough sleeper count was in April 2013 and found 94 people sleeping rough, with the November count due shortly.  He was aware  of comments on serious increases, but he understood that some of these were based on telephone calls to some of the agencies and he was not sure of how accurate they were.  He was not decrying the figures but it was a requirement to get an accurate focus.  Some were up by five or six a day which was a spiraling element of homelessness.  The minister of state responsible for housing was dealing with the housing situation and shortage as best she could.  In 2012 in Dublin alone, 879 people moved from homelessness to independent living: he recently visited Merchants’ Quay and spoke to some of those who had had moved and they had been very happy with the move despite the many difficulties they had.


The Taoiseach said he agreed that economic circumstances put huge pressure on many individuals and families.  The government provided a budget of about €45m in 2013 for services across the country, most going to funding for voluntary providers such as Focus Ireland, the Simon Communities, Crosscare and the day care drop-in and outreach services, who all did intensive and committed work.  The rough sleeper count was not a situation that anybody wanted to stand over.  He had asked a homeless person the other evening about what he did with all the gear he was carrying and he told him that he left it in a place during the day and went round to his usual haunts to see could he make ends meet: this was not a satisfactory situation.  Some people to whom he had spoken had a range of problems and despite the best intentions of voluntary organizations, some of them did not want to go into housing or emergency housing.  ‘Some people want to stay on the street for their own very specific reason.  That is a difficult situation.  When I was first elected here in the 1970s, there was a lady across the road who did not want to go into permanent accommodation despite all the efforts that were made’.


Mary Lou McDonald said she was not really sure what to make of this and accused the Taoiseach of trying to strike a sympathetic note without committing himself really to doing anything to change the situation. Families had been left in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for years, but did not want to be there, they wanted proper accommodation.  The thousands of people on the housing list wanted their own homes.  This was not just an issue of rough sleepers, although that was the sharpest end of the homeless crisis.  She accepted that parts of homelessness were complex issues, but in policy terms it was quite simple.  A 200% increases in rough sleepers should shout “crisis” at the Taoiseach.  The €233m cut in social housing since his government took office was not complex and was a simple decision on the government’s part.  What the Taoiseach must resolve was to tackle the issue and recognize that one could not solve an accommodation crisis would accommodation.  This required the government to invest: ‘tea and sympathy will not cut it.  Yarns about meeting individuals on the street, enlightening as it clearly was for the Taoiseach, would not cut it’.  When would the government invest, release funds to local authorities and ensure people in bed-and-breakfast or sleeping on the streets would have a place to call home?


The Taoiseach replied, amidst frequent interruptions.  He asked her who of his predecessors had taken time to go down the street and talk to these people to try to understand what had them on the streets and learn of the personal, sensitive difficulties unique to them that they might have.  Homelessness was not just a feature of housing accommodation.  The government was reviewing housing policy for the first time in a number of years and there was a requirement on NAMA to make units available.  His own deputies told him that there were houses and units derelict and left vacant in this city that could provide good accommodation.  We had a duty from a humanity point of view to try deal with these in the best way possible, but it was not all about housing.  If she were to take her time to go down the streets and talk to people sleeping in doorways, she took might learn a lesson.


Seamus Healy (ind, Tipperary S) spoke of how up to 30,000 families faced eviction because they did not quality for insolvency procedures because they had no disposable incomes or assets, all low-income families, many headed by unemployed people.  He had a letter from one the pillar banks to such a mortgage holder threatening eviction, conduct that was outrageous, unjust and unfair.  Would the government legislate to enable these unfortunate blameless families to stay in their homes or let the banks deploy the modern equivalent of a battering ram?


The Taoiseach told him that all parties did not want to see anybody thrown out of their homes, but the sad fact was that in a number of cases it was going to be very difficult for some people to hold on to their homes.  The government had put in place all the mechanisms to help a mortgage holder who had a problem, with 47,000 restructured already.  If hard-working people, through no fault of their own, find themselves with a problem, the first thing they must do is engage with the lender to work out a solution.  The government had acted responsibly to put in place codes of practice, targets and legislation to help these people: ‘we do not want to anybody lose their homes’.  Some cases he had come across were very difficult.


Seamus Healy said that many of the people he was talking about would end up on the streets.  Families evicted from their homes would end up on the huge local authority waiting lists, with some 110,000 families already on those lists.  He asked the Taoiseach to intervene with the banks.  The Taoiseach replied that there was a solution in each case for every person who had a mortgage difficulty, but they must engage with the lenders. A deal had to be cut in all these cases.  Thousands of letters went out from the banks, but neither of them was responsible for their tone.  The Central Bank had set down targets for banks to sit down with mortgage holders to work out a solution.  If the banks decided not to deal through the personal insolvency agency, they may get nothing at all.


Separately, asked about food poverty, the Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton told Willie O’Dea (FF, Limerick City)  that her department had started work on the new European Aid for the Most Deprived Persons (FEAD) (Dail Eireann, Debates, 28th November 2013, 104).  It would provide €3m to support charities to deal with the most marginalized and her objective was to have this fully operational in 2014.  In addition, her department provided in 2013 €37m for disadvantaged school children at risk of food poverty in 1,300 schools or organizations.


Meantime, in the Seanad, during order of business in the Seanad, Aideen Hayden (Lab, Taoiseach nominee) told the house that she was disturbed to learn that a number of Traveller families were living in approved Traveller accommodation which lacked basic facilities such as electricity and water: we could not stand over a situation where, despite our economic difficulties, any country did not have such basic facilities (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 26th November 2013, 789).    On the following day, Trevor O Clochartaigh (SF, agricultural) demanded a debate on homelessness, citing the figures provided by Focus Ireland (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 27th November 2013, 838-9, 840, 844).  There had been an increase of numbers seeking support by 18% with 16 families becoming homeless every month.  We were subject to a lot of spin about how everything was turning around, but many people were in dire straights, finding it hard to keep a roof over their heads.  He was supported by Aideen Hayden who spoke of a 50% increase in homelessness in Dublin, citing the Make Room campaign, Threshold, the Society of St Vincent de Paul and Simon as well as a report from the Citizen Information Centres.  Diarmuid Wilson (FF, administrative) described it as ‘a major crisis’, no longer single people addicted to drugs or alcohol, but families.  


Responding, the leader of the house Maurice Cummins (FG, labour) agreed it was a major problem and regardless of the numbers homeless, the government believed that no one should sleep rough.  The cold weather initiative of the Dublin Region Homeless Initiative had begun and would increase emergency bed level and as part of the strategic goal of eliminating long-term homelessness by 2016, the minister of state responsible had appointed an oversight group to review and recommend actions.  Its work was advanced and its report would be published in several weeks.  On the following day, Aideen Hayden renewed her call for a debate on homelessness following disturbing evidence that it had risen dramatically in the past 12 months.  She wanted an evidence based debate, not one in which people screamed at each other claiming to know more about it than the other.  She was aware of the government’s policy, which was based on evidence and international best practice: 80% of people in homeless services wanted a home and were capable of independent living and for anyone to suggest they were there out of choice was a disgrace (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 28th November 2013, 926, 933).  Cait Keane (FG, labour) said she wanted homelessness put top of the list.  There had been a huge increase and no accommodation had become available from NAMAto date.  There were unfinished houses all over the country and there might be homeless families who might wish to move into them.  Focus Ireland should be helped to further ensure that advice was available to families before they became homeless: prevention was better than a cure. 

> See also:

> Focus Ireland, rent supplements and homelessness: Dail Eireann, Debates, 27th November 2013, 899.

> Mortgage arrears and repossessions: Dail Eireann, Debates, 28th November 2013, 39-45; and Rodolphus Allen Trust: Dail Eireann, Debates, 27th November 2013, 736-9

> Rent supplements and homelessness: Dail Eireann, Debates, 28th November 2013, 100.

> S.10 funding for services to assist homeless: Dail Eireann, Debates, 26th November 2013, 608; HSE funding to assist homeless: 26th November, 676-677.